.This year we'll see in the New Year in Switzerland for the first time, and we're planning to take in the firework display over Lake Zürich. Here's four things you maybe didn't know about the city's Silvester (New Year) extravaganza, inspired by an article in today's Tages Anzeiger newspaper.
1. Like Guy Fawkes night, Silvester in Zürich has seen gunpowder and plot
While the Swiss new year spectacle is not based on an attempt at early terrorism like Britain's bonfire night, it's not without a violent history. In 1717 a baker by the name of Scheuzer was murdered during the firework display.
2. They cost less that they did in the 1800s
Last year's Silvester fireworks in Zürich cost 80,000 Swiss francs, but that's actually relatively cheap compared with the displays of yesteryear. In 1850 the spectacle cost less than 3000 francs but measured against the salaries of the time, that's 10 times more than the city pays today.
3. Blue fireworks are a rare treat
When the sky above Lake Zürich is filled with fire, blue explosions are a rarity, and this comes down to cost. Even though the City of Zürich doesn't skimp on the New Year display, blue fireworks are simply much less cost effective, as they require more technical know-how and contain copper salt, which is expensive.
4. The air on Silvester is filled with more than sparkles
While Zürich normally has very good air quality ratings compared with other big cities, come New Year's Eve it loses some of its alpine freshness. Measurements for fine dust particles in the air are apparently 15 times higher than usual. Fireworks also contain some poisonous elements. After a New Year firework display in Austria researchers found traces of arsenic, strontium and caesium in the snow!
Tales of murder and arsenic aside, I hear the fireworks are a spectacular way to celebrate Swiss Silvester. Wherever you're seeing out 2016,, I wish you a very happy New Year.
A few weeks ago Zoë and I finally made the trip to see the Matterhorn, Switzerland's most iconic mountain.
Prior to this visit I had only seen the striking peak in pictures and on packets of Toblerone, and we had been meaning to visit since we first moved to Switzerland.
It was perfect then, that for Zoë’s 30th birthday back in June, she had been given a night's stay at a fancy hotel in Zermatt, the town at the foot of the Matterhorn, by our generous Hungarian friends Linda and Gábor.
This was all the prompt we needed to finally make the trip, and I got to tag a long for what is probably the best gift I never actually received.
From Zurich to Zermatt is about three hours on comfy Swiss trains, with amazing scenery to make the time fly by. Heading to the mountains in the final throes of Autumn is spectacular as the trees are ablaze with colour that stops fairly abruptly at the snow line, creating an impressive fire and ice effect.
On pulling into Zermatt, the weather was perfect, the Matterhorn immediately looming large against a bright blue backdrop.
As mountains go, it is the most impressive I've seen firsthand, mainly because it just appears to be a giant, steep peak. Few other summits build so dramatically or stand out so independently from the rest of their rocky foundations.
The thought that people have climbed this baffled me. It looks impossible. You'd have to be mad to have been among the first to try it. Which is why I was intrigued, but not surprised, to hear that among the first parties to try and reach the top in 1860 were three brothers from my home city of Liverpool – Arthur, Charles and Sandbach Parker.
Now, scousers are not known for their mountaineering prowess – the famous port of course lies at sea level, so the opportunities to practice high altitude expeditions are limited. A trip to the nearby Lake District would only have got them to 978m atop Scafell Pike, someway short of the Matterhorn's 4,478m peak. I can only assume that after a few "bevvies", one of the unlikely trio bet the others that he could climb the thing, and they set off on a sort of madcap lads holiday. It would've been great if they'd done it, but unfortunately they had to turn back after 3,500m. At least they probably made it back to Zermatt in time for last orders. And alive.
The first party that actually succeeded to reach the top weren't all so lucky. After seven failed attempts and developing an all-consuming obsession with being the first to conquer the summit, another Brit, Ed Whymper, finally made it to the top in 1865.
In a dramatic race for the summit, Whymper's expedition made it just ahead of a rival climbing party from Italy who were approaching from a different ridge.
Unfortunately, Whymper's expedition was to end in tragedy. On the descent, the most inexperienced member of the group, Douglas Hadow, slipped and fell onto Michel Croz, the guide leader, leaving the party all dangling by the rope. The rope then snapped below the third climber, sending four of the group plummeting to their deaths. Whymper did make it down, together with Swiss guide Peter Taugwalder and his son of the same name.
Zoë and I had left our crampons at home, so we decided to take the cable car up to the "Matterhorn Glacier Paradise" instead.
There, at the top of the Klein Matterhorn (the Matterhorn's smaller sibling), we were afforded incredible views of the main attraction, (though not from the usual postcard angle), the surrounding glaciers and even, with the weather so clear, across to Mont Blanc.
The beauty of the view was only tempered by being colder than I've ever been in my life. The thermometer said the temperature was -12, but with the wind it must've been more like minus 20. Removing my glove for the this selfie nearly cost me my fingers.
Such was the intensity of this ice blasting that one of the Indian tourists we were up there with didn't stop screeching the whole time he was on the viewing platform. Rather than admit defeat and retreat to the warm he stayed, making a kind of whooping noise, to pose for several pictures. Respect.
Before Zoë and I reached a scream-inducing level of cold, and because Zoë seemed to be experiencing some kind of mountaineer's high from the altitude, we retired to the cafe for a wurst and a rösti to warm up before heading back down.
On arrival back at the hotel it was now late enough to check in, and it turned out we had a really nice view of the mountain to enjoy from the warm cosy room. I was struck by how impressive it is all over again, and reminded that you don’t need to go climbing or brave sub-zero viewing platforms and the wailing of borderline hypothermic tourists to enjoy the Matterhorn – it’s breathtaking from any angle. I can't recommend a trip to Zermatt highly enough.
Brexit followed by a Trump victory. Then, as if 2016 hadn't provided enough shocks, they go and mess with Toblerones.
The internet was ablaze this week with the news that the UK versions of the famous bar have been changed. Actually, to call a Toblerone a bar feels like a disservice. It’s an icon, perhaps even more so back home in the UK than here in its country of origin. Its format is a proven success: a mini mountain range of nutty chocolate that can be broken into individual peaks for a perfect bite-sized portion.
Or at least that was the case.
They thought we wouldn’t notice. It’s an old PR trick. Release a story on the day of a big global event and it’ll be swept to the depths of the paper or below the fold of news sites where nobody will bat an eyelid.
Confectionary giant Mondelez’s announcement that it was downsizing its Toblerone bars in the UK came as the US election reached its climax. But such is the British people’s taste for their chocolate, and distaste for change, that they did notice. And they took to social media in their droves to complain. Mostly because the new bars look really weird.
The reason for this revision? “Higher costs for numerous ingredients” according to the (Tobler)owners.
While such honesty from multinational conglomerates is to be applauded, I do wonder if they missed a trick by not selling the adjustment as a rebrand.
Having recently visited the Matterhorn (more on that soon), I can tell you that the mountain that graces the Toblerone packaging stands out precisely because it stands out. By this I mean it's a striking lone peak, not immediately surrounded by any other – a bit like the new Toblerone chunks. The purveyors of the treat could perhaps have passed the adjustment off as a move to a more authentic interpretation of the Matterhorn’s silhouette?
Failing that, could they maybe have issued a statement claiming that the new Toblerone topography was an educational move to demonstrate that glacial valleys come not just in a V shape, but also a U shape?
It’s a bit late for that now I suppose, and again, I guess we should respect that Mondelez (Tobler)owned up to the real reason for the change.
The good news for me? So far it seems like this is only a UK adjustment – here in Switzerland we can still get Toblerone bars in their classic format for the time being (place your Christmas orders now!).
Though it hasn’t been confirmed explicitly by Mondelez, it is believed that the root cause of the cost issues that triggered this rethink is Brexit. If only the “Remain” camp had highlighted Toblerone downgrades as a possible consequence. The result could’ve been very different.
"What's the weirdest thing that's happened to you since you moved to Switzerland?"
That's what someone wanted to know recently.
After a bit of a think back, I recounted the time I received an unexpected gift from a stranger outside our apartment.
It was about this time of year in 2013 and Zo and I had just been on an Autumn hike along the Uetliberg "panorama trail", taking in the colours and the views of Lake Zürich. Nothing weird there.
Things only became a little odd only when we got off the tram home and turned into our street. It was then that I noticed a guy in a full adidas tracksuit. Someone sporting the full three-stripe combo to pop to the shops is not as common in Switzerland as it is back home in Liverpool, where it’s almost a uniform, but it’s still not weird, they'd probably just been to the gym.
What was weird, however, was what this athletic-attired fellow was holding. It looked like a martian’s head. It was purple with green antenna protruding from it. He looked happy too, as if proudly holding the spoils of some intergalactic fight to the death.
Bemused, I turned my head back to follow this guy behind me down the street. When I looked back in the direction I was going, I was in for another shock. A short man in a flat cap with a moustache was thrusting one of these alien heads into my face.
This time the head was muddy, as if the fight had been more medieval than space age. Only then did I realise what it was.
It was a beetroot.
And this beetroot was nothing like the stuff you get pickled out of a jar to go with your cheese sandwiches back in Blighty (if you’re reading this thinking “that’s a weird combination”, you’re wrong, try it, be welcomed to the revolution).
No, this was beetroot in it’s purest form, fresh from the earth, much of which was still clinging to this fine root vegetable.
The guy was standing at the back of an open van full of the things. And, it turned out after I’d deciphered the words “gratis” (free) and “Randen” (Swiss-German for beetroot), he was giving them away. I’m still not sure why.
So, still a bit confused but not wanting to seem ungrateful, I accepted this dirty purple vegetable and went into the apartment.
Though the initial surprise subsided, I was soon baffled again as I wondered what to do with it.
A quick Google search and I realised I had to cook the thing. The advantage of getting packaged beetroot from the supermarket instead of a stranger outside your house, it seems, is that it usually comes pre-cooked.
So I boiled it for a while. In the interim I looked at recipes. Beetroot crisps sounded good. Just needed to bake some thinly cut pieces.
After cooking and cooling I therefore set about turning the now bright-red beet into slices.
Needless to say, the kitchen soon resembled a scene from American Psycho. And I hadn't had Patrick Bateman’s foresight to put down plastic sheets before I started hacking at my victim, so red, viscous juice soon spattered the walls (and my face - which I didn’t enjoy as much as Bateman seems to in the film).
To make the scene even more ridiculous, I had decided I didn’t want to be caught red-handed, so I had donned a pair of rubber gloves.
Zoe thought it was all bonkers, which it was. She doesn’t even like beetroot. As such, that evening I sat down and devoured a whole giant beetroot’s worth of beetroot crisps. Which, for the record, were delicious.
So, yeah, I think that’s the strangest thing that’s happened to me in Switzerland. If I experience anything more unusual I'll let you know. I suspect, however, that the randomness of this episode will be hard to beet…
Possibly the best thing about living in a country that you didn't grow up in is all the people you meet. But of course, meeting new people in a foreign land isn't easy. In international cities like Zurich, however, the fact that there's a large expat community helps a lot. Now matter how you arrived in Switzerland, you're all in the same boat when comes to building a social life.
Expats go looking for each other. Nowadays sites like Meetup.com facilitate it. People often say that the Swiss are hard to get to know because of their reserved ways. While that may be partially true, I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that, long before we landed on their (metaphorical) shores, they already had a life. Their family and childhood friends are still here, so it's understandably difficult for them to make time for activities with new mates. When you share social identity of 'stranger in a foreign land' with someone, however, it's easier to bond, and you're all looking to build a social circle from scratch.
As a result, many of my good friends out here are also in possession of residency permits rather than Swiss passports. And, as people bring the different expat friends they've made to the group, I'm making new acquaintances from across the globe all the time. It does, however, mean that you have the same expat-to-expat intro conversation quite a lot.
The standard expat chat
There are almost unspoken rules for how you get to know someone else who is not a native. I think the following conversation structure will be very familiar to most expats, certainly in Zurich. It goes something like this. Comments in brackets are not spoken aloud:
Person 1: Hi, I'm X, nice to meet you.
Person 2: Hi X. I'm Y, nice to meet you too.
Person 1: Where are you from?
Person 2: I'm from England
Person 1: Ah, I thought your English was good.
Person 2: And you?
Person 1: I'm from <Insert country - In Zurich, often Spain, Germany or America>
Person 1: How long have you been in Zurich?
Person 2: <Insert time span - Usually no more than three years, this is a city of transience>. You?
Person 1: Same! Did you come here for work?
Person 2: Yes, and you?
Person 1: I came here because of my partner's work and found a job
Person 1: Great, where do you work?
Person 2: <Insert name of large multinational company, usually a bank>
Person 1: Oh, cool, I've heard of them (but I've no idea what actually happens there)
Person 2: What about you?
Person 1: <Insert name of large multinational company, could also be a medical / pharmaceutical firm >
Person 2: Oh, cool. I think I know the company (but I've no idea what actually happens there). Is that near the airport? (Fifty-fifty chance here. If it's not near the airport it's probably in the city centre).
Person 1: No, it's in the city centre
Person 2: Ah, yes now I know. That must be nice (I knew I should've guessed city centre)
Person 1: Yes, it's great. So, how do you like Zurich?
Person 2: I love it, I'm very happy here. It's so clean.
Person 1: I know! And the public transport!
Person 2: Tell me about it!
Person 1: How do you find the language?
Person 2: OK, my high German is pretty good, but the Swiss German is a challenge.
Person 1: Yeah, it's crazy. I'm learning German at the moment but everyone at work speaks English so I don't get to practice.
Person 2: I totally understand, I have the same problem.
Person 1: Do you ski?
Person 2: No, I don't unfortunately (I really should just learn avoid this conversational awkwardness. At least in March this line of questioning will be over). Do you?
Person 1: Yes (Of course I do, who comes to live in Switzerland and doesn't ski?!)
Person 2: I do like the mountains though. I tend to go and just drink beer and look at the scenery
Person 1: You Brits, you love beer
Person 2: Yes, we do, speaking of which, shall we get a drink?
Person 1: Lead the way
Then of course, the real getting to know someone begins. But don't get me wrong, this unspoken conversational structure isn't a bad thing – it's really helpful for breaking the ice when meeting people for the first time. It gets a bit repetitive when you do it five times in a night, so I have thought about shake things up with my responses (Yes, I do ski, well, I used to, until the gold medal in Vancouver. Everything seemed a bit tame after that…). But I think I'll refrain from any nonsense. I wouldn't want to jeopardise making a new friend. After all, meeting new people is what being an expat is all about.
The Swiss have high hopes for the “Nati”, their national team, when they kick off their European Championships campaign against Albania later today. Reaching the quarter finals is apparently the aim. Can they do it? Well, that depends on the 11 men in red on the pitch. For those that aren’t familiar with the Swiss squad, here are the lads carrying the weight of this small nation on their shoulders:
Goalkeeper: Yann Sommer (above)
The safest hands in Switzerland? Absolutely. The former Basel stopper has a reputation for reliability. He has replaced long-standing keeper Diego Benaglio in the Swiss lineup with relative ease, just as he filled the filled the void at Borussia Mönchengladbach when Marc-Andre Ter Stegen left for Barcelona. A good communicator, if he feels the Swiss back line aren’t giving him the right protection, they’ll know about it.
Right back: Stephan Lichtsteiner (c)
As captain, the first name on the team sheet. Stephan Lichtsteiner is one of the few players in the Swiss team whose calibre is undisputed. A key part of the Juventus team that has won five Italian titles in a row, and with 80 caps for the Swiss, he brings experience and quality. He also has a hell of an engine. Watch for him bombing down the touchline all game and then somehow still have the puff to complain at a teammate. That’s the one thing that Lichtsteiner could be criticised for. Criticising. If things aren’t going his way we'll see finger pointing and dropped shoulders. Not what you want from your captain.
Centre half: Michael Lang
I was impressed the few times I watched Lang play for Grasshopper Club Zurich. He’s since moved on to greater things with Switzerland’s top team, FC Basel. Usually a right back, the untouchable Lichtsteiner forces him to slot in at centre half. That shouldn't be a problem for Lang, who has the physique to handle even the burliest striker. In Basel they call him “the machine.” Enough said.
Will be under pressure for his place from Basel's Fabian Schär.
Centre half: Johan Djourou
English fans will remember Djoruou as a young pretender to Tony Adams’ crown at Arsenal. It didn’t quite work out for him with the Gunners, but he has gone on to captain HSV Hamburg. Despite plenty of experience, questions have been asked about his composure and his health – he was most recently ruled out with a nasty virus. Djourou might well have lost his place to Norwich’s Timm Klose had Klose not suffered a knee ligament tear a short while ago. Probably the weak link in the Swiss defence. Fellow former gooner Philippe Senderos didn't make the squad.
Left back: Ricardo Rodriguez (above)
Rodriguez is the real deal. Has proven his class and a mental strength well beyond his 23 years in while playing for Wolfsburg, who reached the Champions League quarter finals this season. Didn’t have the best year for his club though, with off-field issues, including the death of his mother, probably the cause. Let’s hope a good Euros performance gives him something to cheer.
Right midfield: Valon Behrami
A fighter rather than a traditional fleet-of-foot right-sider, the Swiss love him for his never-say-die attitude. Nowhere was this better characterized than by his heroics at the last World Cup against Equador, where he won the ball in his own box with a last-ditch tackle before running halfway up the pitch, riding tackles and releasing Rodriquez to set up a Swiss winner. He didn’t really shine this season with Watford, but if he stays injury free he’ll be key for Switzerland.
Central midfield: Granit Xhaka (above)
Big things are expected of Xhaka at the Euros after he recently sealed a £30m move to Arsenal. Formerly the captain of Borussia Mönchengladbach, he will be called upon to pull the strings in the midfield, likely as a lone central midfielder. As you’d expect from a midfielder signed by Arsene Wenger, he has an eye for a pass and great technical talent. It will be interesting to see if he can rise to the occasion at the tournament in France. One of several members of the Swiss team to have Albanian heritage, his brother opted to play for Albania, and the two will line up against each other this afternoon – the first time siblings have competed against each other at a European Championships.
Left midfield: Admir Mehmedi
Bayer Leverkusen's Mehmedi was originally born in Macedonia, but grew up in Switzerland. Traditionally a striker, he tends to play more as a wide man for the national side, and has only scored four goals in 42 international appearances. He has a burst of pace though, and plenty of Bundesliga experience. One of the most underrated members of the Swiss side.
Right wing: Xherdan Shaqiri (above)
Switzerland’s star man, he’s the one plastered all over Zurich’s tram stops promoting soft drinks now the tournament is underway. The former Inter Milan and Bayern Munich forward's move to Stoke City this time last year raised a lot of eyebrows here, and prompting headlines like “Where the hell is Stoke?”. While Stoke might not be the glamorous destination the Swiss had in mind for their showboating attacker, he hardly played in Munich and the increase in game time with the Potters can only help his performances for the national team. A match winner on his day, as he showed a couple of times in the Premier League this season, the Swiss will rely on him for goals.
Centre forward: Haris Seferovic
When it comes to finding someone to lead the front line, Switzerland unfortunately have a dearth of options. They lack a target man entirely. Yet another Mönchengladbach star, Josip Drmic, would probably get the nod, but a knee injury has ruled him out of the tournament. That leaves coach Vladimir Petkovic to choose between Haris Seferovic and Eren Derdiyok. Derdiyok had the better goal ratio in the last club campaign, with 12 goals in 28 games for Kasimpasa Istanbul, but it looks as though Eintracht Frankfurt’s Seferovic will still be preferred. This despite the fact that he scored just 3 goals last season for Frankfurt, all coming before Christmas. In his favour is that he’s been the one finding the net in the Euro 2016 qualifying matches. If Seferovic doesn’t get on the scoresheet in the early rounds, Derdiyok can expect to be called upon.
Left wing: Breel Embolo (below)
This kid is exciting. Breel Embolo is just 19 and is already being touted as the “Swiss Pele”. An exaggeration? Probably. But he has looked super sharp for FC Basel in his big breakthrough season and has the skill and pace to make things happen. He has handled the pressure well in big games so far, and the exuberance of youth could be just what the Swiss attacking line needs to cause opposition defenders problems. Having reportedly already attracted the attentions of Europe’s biggest clubs, a good performance at Euro 2016 and Embolo could be coming to a Premier League club near you very soon.
While writing this post I realised that, on paper, the Swiss have a better team than I thought. They do have weak spots in key positions though, notably in central defence and in the main striker position. That said, if Djourou finds form and Shaqiri and co. up front can find the net, achieving that quarter final place is a real possibility. Hopp Schwiiz!
Ever wondered what happened to Shania Twain and Phil Collins? Well, they're here with me.
In Switzerland I mean – I haven't kidnapped them or anything. They're both residents in the French-speaking part of the country, lured here presumably by the scenery, the cheese and the lack of paparazzi. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the "cough" tax legislation.
More recently, and just down lake Zürich, Paris Hilton is apparently the latest household name to move in.
But I doubt any of these celebs can claim to be as integrated, or as Swiss, as Zürich's most famous adopted daughter, Tina Turner.
In Küsnacht on Lake Zürich's exclusive gold coast, Ms Turner is very much at home. In fact, she's so at home her she relinquished her US citizenship and secured a Swiss passport in 2013.
For some people this might have been a surprise, but according to Tina it has actually been a long time coming, as she explained in the below ad for a Swiss telecom provider.
Apparently, even as a young girl in Tennessee, before she had even heard of Switzerland, she sensed that she belonged in a land with rivers deep and mountains high. And even when she was propelling herself to superstardom with power ballads, it seems all she really wanted to do was yodel:
Now, I love living in Switzerland, but a desire to yodel was not something I had to suppress during my childhood back in Merseyside (for which I'm grateful – that would have been a surefire ticket to a wedgie, or worse).
Of course, it's all a bit tongue-in-cheek, but I've heard Tina's devotion to Swiss life is genuine.
While many of us expats have quickly felt a connection with Switzerland, to get citizenship here requires a special dedication to Swiss life. They don't give those little red passports out unless you marry a Swiss person (Tina's husband is German) or prove your passion for the land of cheese and chocolate.
This leaves us with only one conclusion: for Tina, Switzerland really is "simply the best".
I've got a long way to go...
"It’ll be the best day of your life they said." Talk about setting something up for an anti-climax. But our wedding day was just that. To have all our friends and family in one place for a huge celebration was an unforgettable experience.
And though it was very much a traditional English affair, held in leafy Surrey where my wife (yes, still getting used to that) hails from, we still managed to inject a bit of our love of Switzerland into proceedings.
While chocolate ladybirds from Läderach and mini-Lindt Easter eggs added a bit of stereotypical Swiss spring to the table favours, it was the table plan itself that was all-out Swiss.
In my only serious contribution to the wedding planning I set up a Swiss-alp themed table plan, with each table named after an iconic Swiss mountain or one that means something to us both.
For those that weren’t in attendance, here’s how our alpine hit-list appeared on the tables, together with the text that justified the inclusion of each on our big day:
"If I say I'm going to do that again, stop me."
Those were the words that came out of my mouth as I was greeted by Zoë and my parents after I finished the 2010 London Marathon.
Despite this outburst, in three weeks' time I will be toeing a marathon start line once again, this time in New York City.
So why the change of heart? Well, that's Switzerland's fault. Here are three of the reasons that my country of residence has pushed me to take on 26.2 miles again.
1. The people
The Swiss are sporty. While the UK sadly tops the European obesity table, you'd be hard-pushed to spot an obese person in Zürich (and this in the land of chocolate and fondue!) And it's contagious. In fact, it's almost harder to avoid sport than partake.
After completing my first Swiss half marathon, I was sent a book of all the events happening in the coming year. It was a tome. It seems there are about two endurance events a day here. From 5k charity dashes and family runs and mountain ultra marathons, there's something for anyone who wants to don their running shoes and get out there.
As such, there are a lot of colleagues at work who run. This has resulted in me taking part in a team relay in the hills around Zürich and even a Gigathlon. There, my point exactly – I'd never heard of a Gigathlon before I came to Switzerland either!
The Gigathlon was also a relay race, though much more testing. Comprised of five disciplines (running, mountain biking, road cycling, swimming and, randomly, inline skating), this two day beast of an event covered all the main historical landmarks in the neighbouring Kanton (county) of Aargau.
Many of these are castles, and, as the people who built them didn't want their enemies just sauntering up to portcullis, they are of course at the top of hills.
I did the running for my team (24 miles over the two days, climbing 880m in total) and it was one of the toughest things I've ever done, not least because it took place in the middle of a summer heat wave.
Some crazily impressive people took on the whole thing in pairs or even as individuals. Our office alone had three teams of five competing and our head of events Andrea did the whole thing as a pair with her brother. Respect.
The Swiss, quite simply, are endurance sport mad. So, as the old saying goes, if you can't beat them, join them. In most events, I can't really do either, but it's fun trying to keep up.
2. The setup
These big events take organisation, something the Swiss have got nailed. Events like those I've mentioned require a marathon effort in logistics to pull off, but in the many I've done, I've never so much as experienced a false start. Bag transport is so fast from start to finish that I doubt even Usain Bolt would have to wait to collect his backpack at the end of a race.
The clockwork Swiss might also be helped by the fact that their athletes compete pretty seriously. While we Brits like to enter races in costumes to raise funds for charity, Swiss runners, as a rule, seem to do neither. While a warm up at a British city race might consist of tea in a styrofoam cup and a sausage roll, a Swiss warm up resembles a floor gymnastics routine at the Olympics. I swear I once even saw a pirouette. It makes my slow jogging up and down look positively half-hearted. I get exhausted just watching them.
At least the lack of costumes removes the embarrassment that occurs when someone dressed as an animal passes you. Getting overtaken by a conga-train style centipede in London was humiliating ten times over.
Equally professional though, are the volunteers at the events, and I'm so grateful for that. Bar one mishap in the Gigathlon when I inadvertently received a hot bouillon instead of water at a drinking station (imagine if I'd poured it over my head! – it's good salty nourishment for those doing the full event apparently), I've always received refreshments at regular intervals with smiles and words of encouragement.
The crowds are great too, and I now love running along to the jangle of cow bells which are used to spur people on to the next checkpoint, together with shouts of "Hopp Hopp." I think I might give Zoe a bell to ring in New York just so I can have the same accompaniment. Or perhaps I could even wear one...
3. The setting
People are always telling me that not to ski in Switzerland is a crime (maybe this winter folks, ok, jeez), I think you can just as easily say the same about running. When I first arrived here I punctuated my initial job search with laps of a dedicated running track in the nearby park. Gently undulating, made of knee-friendly peat with compressed wood chips and complete with mile markers, it was the perfect way to get back into the sport.
I then progressed to climbing the nearby Zürichberg hill and, with its staggered climbs, I literally took my running up a couple of levels. There's also the Käferberg opposite, which affords great views of the city and the lake. If I'm feeling "urban" I can head into the city — there and back is a nice gently sloping 10k, and I can extend down to the lake if I want to go further. Our friend Linda, a Hungarian who has caught the Swiss running bug too, also tipped me off to a route along the river. It's stunning, and it goes on forever, perfect for logging those pre-marathon miles.
From the office, I can take a leaf out of the book of my mate Luisen "the ironman" Ramos (a Spanish running machine long before he arrived in Switzerland, though as he doesn't like cheese or chocolate I think the sport is what keeps him here ;) and do the 17k around the circumference of Zürich airport, which is surprisingly picturesque, with both jumbo jets and birds of prey zooming close overhead. The nature in general is stunning. On a jog here you can run into deer (hopefully not literally), have your tempo set by a woodpecker, and see majestic red kites up close.
There are also a plethora of mountain run options. I think I'm some way from taking on the Jungfrau marathon, but to train in the Alps is an incredible experience. The famous "runners high" seems easier to achieve with snow capped mountains in view, though I suppose it might just be the thin air...
Running through Swiss scenery has only gone badly wrong once, when I inadvertently ended up surrounded by naked men. As it turned out, I'd wandered into a nudists area near the river. My immediate reaction was to speed up, but that didn't work as it turned out to be an island, so I had to run back through them again. It was the fastest kilometre of my life. The lesson? Run through nature, not naturists.
No end in sight
In short, Switzerland has made me a runner again. And I run like never before. Two-day events would have been unthinkable until I came here, never mind the six-day-a-week training plan I embarked on to prepare for New York. I've run new half marathon bests and even finished 8th in my age category a recent 10k. If all goes to plan in NYC (and that's a big if), I should knock over an hour off my time from London in 2010 and have a much more enjoyable race in the process.
Plus, possibly best of all, through the generosity of Swiss and English folk alike, I've raised a lot of cash for the Multiple Sclerosis Society. My latest marathon exploits stand to generate over £1000 once offline pledges are combined with those at justgiving.com/newyorkmarathonmike. If you haven't donated yet, anything you can give would be hugely appreciated.
A few days after the marathon I turn 30, and my new-found love of running is the best present Switzerland could ever have given me. It's a release, a social experience and a fitness boost all at once. And, body allowing, this is just the start. I hope that for my Swiss running journey, there is no finish line.
After our visit to Gruyere I was literally about 50% cheese, but this still left a way to go before the day could be considered 100% Swiss. The rest would of course have to be made up with Switzerland's other famous export – chocolate!
Just a short drive from Gruyere is the Cailler chocolate factory, which pumps out gallons of chocolate every day. I would have that other 50% made up in no time.
Cailler is not a brand I've ever seen outside of Switzerland, which is weird as it's super popular. Their milk chocolate offering in a purple wrapper is a particular favourite. Zoe tries to restrict her intake, as she tends to inhale it whenever it's in the house. It's scary, she must literally inhale it – there's no other way it could disappear so fast.
The Swiss chocolate house
Even from the outside it's pretty impressive. The sprawling factory is pretty well masked by the bright white frontage of the old 'Maison Cailler' (above). Today, Cailler is owned by Nestle, but it wasn't always that way.
Back in 1819, bitter, dark drinking chocolate had already been around for ages, since the Aztecs in fact, as the fun and informative factory tour explained. After a tasting some chocolate on a trip to Italy, Francois-Louis Cailler was so taken with the stuff he returned to Switzerland and opened the country's first chocolate factory. The veritable Willy Wonka of his day, he was the first to develop a smooth form of the cocoa goodness that could be made into bars. A revolution had begun!
The cream of the crop
It was his son-in-law, Daniel Peter, however, who had an even better idea. He tried mixing the chocolate from the Cailler factory with the condensed milk his mate Henri Nestle was making on the other side of the town. The result was the first milk chocolate, and the rest, as they say, is history. So next time you have to have a tooth filled, or your favourite jeans don’t fit, blame Daniel Peter.
Of course, no such tour would be complete without a tasting. And I was expecting one of epic proportions. Unlike Roald Dahl's Charlie I didn't' get a golden ticket, I merely paid an entry fee that leads one to expect that the ticket is actually made of gold. Actually, for Switzerland is was pretty good value, but when it came to samples I was determined to get my 12 francs' worth.
First, however, we had to finish the tour, after a robotically animated tour through the history of chocolate, all that was left after was a room promoting Nestle's fair trade and quality control efforts. By pressing the right number on your audio headset you could hear how happy the cocoa farmers pictured on the wall were, or listen to a spiel from an incredibly well spoken local farmer about how proud he is that the milk from his cows ends up in Cailler chocolate.
There are also hands-on exhibits featuring different ingredients, so you can sniff vanilla pods or fondle lumps of cocoa butter. I don't think the intention is that you stuff your face with the almonds on show, like I saw one zealous lady doing. This was wrong on many levels, not least because I'd just seen a kid covered in drool rub his hands in the pot (no judgement on the slobber – after a tour of hot-chocolate-scented exhibits I too was salivating), but also because she was wasting precious stomach space on dry nuts when there was almost certainly a tasting session imminent.
The end exhibit was a bit promotional and felt a little disingenuous, but it was interesting to follow the whole supply chain along the wall, which I'm pleased to report does lead one to taste the end result.
First we watched through a window as blocks of praline were rolled up by robots and sent through a machine that bathed them in runny liquid chocolate (below). If I could've lain myself down on the conveyor belt and channelled my inner Augustus Gloop I would've done. This fantasy was short-lived though. A smeared trail on the glass revealed that the dribbling kid had already passed through. I needed to be quick if I was to make it to the real tasting before he slobbered all over the awaiting confectionery.
On my way I found Zoe at the end of the chocolate machine. Hastily torn wrappers revealed she'd gone to town on the sample chocs at the end of the machine. This was an error. She thought they were the only samples we'd get. I knew there had to be more. I'm no amateur. I've been to Cadbury's World.
I was right. At the end of the tour there were Swiss-alp sized mounds of cocoa goodness to consume. White chocolate, the dark stuff, with nuts, without nuts. One thing's for sure. We went nuts.
I thought I could try every type available, just a little taste, but I couldn't. After a particularly rich bit of praline I had to accept the terrible truth. I'd hit the chocolate wall.
Disappointment was slowly replaced by nausea and I slunk away from the chocolate and out of the building, closely followed by Zoe in a similar state of chocolate-induced distress.
I'd had a great time at Cailler, and in Gruyere, but with the cheese then the chocolate it had all been too much. My Swiss integration clearly still has some way to go.
Mike Stuart moved to Switzerland in 2013 when his better half Zoë landed a job in Zurich.